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Mary Francis Hill Coley: Midwife Activist

February 27, 2018

Known for her progressive views on childbirth, Mary Francis Hill Coley was an influential midwife in American history. Coley, known as Miss Mary, was an African American woman with almost no formal education, but she successfully helped deliver more than 3,000 babies over 30 years. A nurse, social activist, and local Georgian, Miss Mary is truly an inspirational Mindful Hero.

Georgian. Midwife. Activist.

Born in Baker County, Georgia in 1900, Mary Francis Hill was raised by aunts and uncles after her mother died in childbirth and her father passed away. She later married her husband Ashley Coley and moved to Albany in 1930. A midwife named Onnie Lee Logan trained Miss Mary in midwifery, and she later became an advocate for community health.

Despite the racial barriers in Georgia at the time, Miss Mary helped both black and white mothers deliver babies in the segregated south. She did everything she could to aid the women and their families. She would even help mothers in recovery by doing chores for them or organizing registrations forms and certificates for the county health office.

Miss Mary was later featured in an award-winning documentary, All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story (1953). Filmed by George C. Stoney, the documentary was commissioned by the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Audio-Visual Division of the Association of American Medical Colleges. The film follows Miss Mary as she “guides two women and their families through the latter stages of pregnancy and the birth”—one of the women is “proactive and prepared” and the other is from a “poorer household.”

The film became a staple in midwifery training programs for years.

Childbirth in the U.S. Today

Miss Mary’s advocacy for healthy childbirth and her care and attention to details was vital back then. With today’s rising number of American mothers suffering childbirth complications, it’s fair to say that we could use a little more of this care today.

Research shows that more American women are dying from pregnancy-related complications than any other developed country—and the rate of deaths is rising. This is partially due to the fact that hospitals “can be woefully unprepared for a maternal emergency.” In fact, famed tennis player, Serena Williams, recently revealed that she suffered from serious health complications after giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia. At the time her symptoms were initially dismissed by nurses.

And it’s not just American mothers who are in danger. According to one study, the United States has the poorest child health outcomes than other wealthy nations. In fact, the U.S. falls behind Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Miss Mary, Never Forgotten

In the light of these sobering studies, Miss Mary’s story is particularly inspiring. Though she died in 1966 in Albany, her legacy lives on. In 2002, the Library of Congress selected the All My Babies documentary for the National Film Registry. It was noted as a “culturally, historically and artistically significant work.”

In 2005, Miss Mary was featured in the “Reclaiming Midwives: Pillars of Community Support” exhibit at the Anacostia Smithsonian Museum for African American History and Culture. And in 2011, Miss Mary was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame.

It’s quite clear that Miss Mary and all her hard work will not be forgotten.

Bonus. Want to learn about other trailblazing black women? Check out this Mindful article on Shirley Chisholm.

Main photo credit: Screenshot from All My Babies documentary

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